Irish season in review: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

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Irish season in review: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

Four months ago, the focus was on Notre Dame not because of any championship aspirations, but because of a slew of suspensions and controversial comments made by a radio announcer.

The focus swiftly changed over the next few months, but on Sept. 1, Notre Dame had plenty of distractions involving those who wouldn't play a role in the team's season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Tommy Rees and Cierre Wood were suspended for the game, taking out the team's starting quarterback and leading rusher from the 2011 season. Radio broadcaster Allen Pinkett was pulled off the trip after saying the team needed more criminals, sparking plenty of debates that had nothing to do with the on-field product at Notre Dame:

Piling on that, Notre Dame had to deal with a secondary most feared would be the team's weak link. Lo Wood's ruptured Achilles' tendon meant KeiVarae Russell, who hadn't played a down of cornerback in his life, would start for the Irish. And Everett Golson was set trot out on the pitch at Aviva Stadium as Notre Dame's starting quarterback with nobody really knowing how he'd fare in that role.

"It can all be decided and look perfect in practice, and when the lights go on -- we all know from being around this game that, when the lights go on, kids react differently," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said before the season. "Some kids play better than they ever play, and some kids play worse."

All this added up to a ton of excess baggage following the Irish across the Atlantic Ocean. But in 60 minutes in Dublin, Notre Dame dispatched Navy with ease, blowing by the Midshipmen 50-10.

"We put 50 points on the board, so that's a pretty good start," coach Brian Kelly aptly summed up.

A year after opening the season with torrent of turnovers in a loss to South Florida, Notre Dame forced four turnovers and only committed one, a sign of things to come in the regular season. Stephon Tuitt's 77-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery punctuated a suffocating defensive effort, while Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III scored a pair of touchdowns apiece, easily making up for the production lost without Wood in the lineup.

Golson wasn't flashy, but he was efficient running a limited playbook, completing 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Ultimately, Notre Dame's win over Navy wasn't a barometer for the rest of the season. Fifty points was Notre Dame's season high, and Atkinson was eventually phased out of the team's playbook as the season wore on. But Riddick emerged as a legitimate threat out of the backfield after his previous foray into receiving, and he would hold on to that No. 1 running back role throughout the season.

What Notre Dame's season opener did do was set the tone for a team which greatly improved its turnover ratio from 2011. A year after coughing up the ball 10 times in its first two games, Notre Dame largely held on to the football while forcing plenty of turnovers from its opponents.

And overall, the easy 50-10 win was the first inclination that this wasn't the same Notre Dame team that went 8-5 in the previous two years.

Stay with CSNChicago.com every weekday through the end of January for game-by-game reviews of Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship.

Three keys and prediction: Notre Dame - Syracuse

Three keys and prediction: Notre Dame - Syracuse

Here are three keys and a prediction for Saturday's Notre Dame-Syracuse game in New Jersey.

1. Make a play on Amba Etta-Tawo: Orange quarterback Eric Dungey targets Etta-Tawo, college football’s leading receiver through four weeks, an average of 13 times a game. Covering Etta-Tawo well is one thing, but that won’t necessarily mean Dungey will look elsewhere to throw the ball. Senior Cole Luke will probably get the first crack at guarding Etta-Tawo, and he’ll have to make a few plays on the ball (a tipped pass, an interception, etc.) to force Dungey out of his comfort zone. If Luke can’t do it, look for an underclassmen — Donte Vaughn, who picked off a pass against Duke, would have to lead that next group — to step in. Stopping Etta-Tawo would go a long way toward keeping the points down against Syracuse’s going-to-plaid offense. 

2. Meet “the standard” on offense. DeShone Kizer has been somewhere between very good and great this season, but it hasn’t been enough for Notre Dame to avoid any of their three losses. Syracuse’s defense is prone to allowing explosive plays and has struggled against the run, so triggering Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and/or Tarean Folston on the ground could allow Kizer to pick apart the Orange secondary as the game goes on. Most importantly, Kizer and his teammates need to avoid carelessly turning the ball over, as they did a few times against Michigan State and Syracuse. 

3. Effective play from the young guys. Kelly said one of the defensive changes we’ll see going forward is a lot more younger, talented players getting on the field in situations in which they weren’t equipped to in Brian VanGorder’s complex defense. Maybe that means defensive end Daelin Hayes using his elite pass rushing trait to pressure Dungey, or linebacker Asmar Bilal using his excellent speed trait to run with a crossing route and break up a pass. No matter how it happens, it has to happen — with that “it” being making defensive plays. Without sacks, TFLs, fumbles and/or interceptions, all that talk of Notre Dame having more “fun” this week will ring hollow on Saturday.

 

Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42. Adams and Williams both have big games on the ground and Kizer leads an offensive oscillating between explosive and efficient to, for the first time this year, enough points to overcome a shaky defensive performance. 

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

For Notre Dame, it’s time to ‘rewrite the story of the season’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has three losses, fired its defensive coordinator and, just four weeks into the season, there's a real possibility it'll fall short of bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years. That’s the current story of the Irish, and it won’t change unless plenty else does in South Bend.

Jettisoning Brian VanGorder was one of those changes, and getting a number of new players onto the field on Saturdays could be another. But the most important change Notre Dame can make over its final eight games is simply winning them.  

“We've put ourselves in a pretty bad situation and it's time to wake up and fight back and rewrite the story of this season,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “And that's what we fully intend to do.”

Notre Dame, though, can’t walk into MetLife Stadium on Saturday, make a bunch of mistakes and still beat Syracuse, as they did two years ago. In Year 1 of the Dino Babers era, Syracuse’s up-tempo, Baylor-style offense has turned heads and will create a challenge for Notre Dame’s underperforming secondary. 

Quarterback Eric Dungey — who may or may not have been nursing an undisclosed injury this week — threw for 407 yards against Bob Diaco’s UConn defense last week and ranks third in FBS with 179 passing attempts (he’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has nine touchdowns against three interceptions). This offense has one speed: Get the ball, throw the ball, get it again, throw it again. Syracuse is averaging 86 plays per game, a number that sticks out given Texas ripped off 50 points against the Irish on Sept. 4 on… 86 plays. 

Notre Dame’s secondary, meanwhile, is allowing an abysmal 9.1 yards per attempt (121st in FBS) and will have to find a way to stop Orange receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who leads FBS with 706 yards and is fifth with 40 receptions. Dungey, on average, targets Etta-Tawo 13 times a game. Merely playing good coverage isn’t enough to deter Dungey from throwing him the ball, so Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. or whoever is on him on Saturday will also have to make plays with the ball in the air, since it's going to be coming their way. 

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The narrative Notre Dame coaches and players pitched publicly this week involved having more energy, more fun, more passion, more fire — whatever you want to throw into Thesaurus.com — and that translating into this defense playing better starting Saturday. 

“I think a lot of guys were out there tense, tightened up and weren’t playing loose,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of guys let loose this week and it’s been a real positive atmosphere.”

But nobody will be having any fun on Saturday if the same issues that got VanGorder fired re-emerge. Sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles (Notre Dame hasn’t had one of those this year), interceptions — those are what “fun” is a tangible outcome of, not the other way around. 

Notre Dame’s offense has been good enough to win in a vacuum (47 points against Texas, 28 points against Michigan State and 35 points against Duke, in theory, should’ve been enough to go at least 2-1) but hasn’t been good enough to pick up for the lagging defense. Kelly has been hard on quarterback DeShone Kizer, saying his play against Michigan State and Duke was below standard, an assessment Kizer agreed with this week. 

The standard, at least in broad terms, is getting the offense to overcome the defense’s deficiencies. Syracuse’s defense is allowing a Lamar Jackson-skewed 7.31 yards per play against FBS opponents and ranks in the lower third of college football in most defensive categories. Duke’s defense at least did a few things well heading into last Saturday; it’s harder to find the positives for Syracuse. 

So this game, on paper, looks like it’ll devolve into another high-scoring shootout. 

“My standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win,” Kizer said. “We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”

A loss to Syracuse very well could be the start of a death knell for Notre Dame’s bowl eligibility chances. A win could help reinforce the positive attitude coaches have worked to instill in their players, proving to this team that the changes were for the better. 

There’s a lot at stake on Saturday in New Jersey for Notre Dame, which certainly wasn’t the expectation for this game a month ago. It’s not only bowl eligibility, but if things go haywire again, it could mean more jobs will be on the line than just the defensive coordinator. 

“If this team is not playing well, it's my fault,” Kelly said. “It's my fault that they're not playing well. So I have to find the solutions to it. After a game, when you're frustrated with the play, everybody is on notice. I'm on notice, and I made that pretty clear that I'm responsible. I said our coaches were on notice, and I said our players were on notice.

“Because we're all in this together. We all spend the same amount of time. If I didn't make that clear, I will make that clear one last time and then we're going to move on: Everybody is on notice, and is it starts with the head coach.”